What is Hair Metal?

Born in the sleaze pits of the Sunset Strip, 80s Hair Metal is the love child of Spandex & Glam Rock. Big bands loved Aqua Net, power ballads, and chicks. Definitely chicks.

80s rock band playing hair metal songs on the Sunset Strip
Metal Skool (now Steel Panther) at The Key Club in Los Angeles in 2008

Ahhhhhh, Hair Metal, the Immortal 80s (Guitar) God of the Sunset Strip that Seattle Grunge bands drowned in Aqua Net!

Leaving a trail of (stripper) glitter from The Rainbow to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, hair metal left an indelible mark on the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, and, the rest of the United States of America (and the world for that matter).

80s hair metal bands ruled the musical roost for the better part of the 1980s and even into the early 1990s, churning out everything from bluesy, sleaze rock club drinking/drugging anthems, to arena-shaking pop metal power ballads.

And no band did the former like Guns’n’Roses with Mr. Brownstone. As to the latter, there is some debate over exactly what a power ballad is. Is it more like Home Sweet Home and Every Rose, or, is it more like Here I Go Again?

80’s Hair Metal History

The early 80s featured a mix of new big hair bands on the scene, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, bands evolving their sound, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, and bands evolving their members, like Ratt and Dokken.

Beyond that, there were glam bands that zagged away from hair metal instead of zigging into it, like Pantera, and even Skid Row on their second album, Slave to the Grind, with both getting progessively heavier. Even Randy Rhoads of Ozzy Osbourne hard rock and heavy metal fame went "hair" with Quiet Riot.

Glam Rock Roots

While many boast that Hair Metal takes its rock ‘n’ roll roots from 1970s glam rock, I think that’s just plain overselling it. It was more of a natural evolution of rock, starting with Led Zeppelin.

Kids wanted to be Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. They were like guitarist Joe Satriani, who upon hearing that Jimi Hendrix died, walked off the football field, got himself an electric guitar, and began surfing with the alien.

They saw Kiss in all their glory: face paint, leather, spitting blood, breathing fire, with a bass that looked like a real axe, and a New Hampshire fireworks store’s worth of pyro lit at the concert, and thought, "That! That is going to get me laid!"

They saw Steven Tyler strutting around in black fish nets and a white négligée and thought, "That! That is going to get me laid!?"

As the late Charlie Murphy said, "You know where you got that shirt from - and it damn sure wasn’t the men’s department."

Flair and flamboyance works every time. As does being in a rock band.

The Pop Metal Evolution and the Rock Brigade

Hair metal had its fuel in classic, glam, and hard rock, all it needed was a spark to ignite. It got it with the late 1970s debut of Van Halen. You could say things ... erupted.

A graduate of Glam Hair University (honorary degree), Diamond Dave was a male hair template of what a pop metal frontman should be. 80s hair metal rock singers now had the perfect triangle of influencers ... the screechy vocals like Plant, the androgynous dress of Steven Tyler, and the dazzling stage moves of DLR.

Then there was Eddie Van Halen. Guitar god. Lord of the fretboard. Master of six string ceremonies. EVH turned the rock world (and the sunset strip - epicenter of the Hair Metal Scene) upside down with face melting solos and two-hand tapping. After Van Halen debuted, EVERY person on the planet wanted to learn how to solo on guitar.

Literally everyone. Dogs too.

Across the pond, British bands like Def Leppard were earning a name for themselves by slowly moving their version of heavy metal music into the mainstream. A more melodic metal album, 1983’s Pyromania vaulted the band up the Billboard charts and into households across the U.S.

The stage was set. Sex-driven, spandex wearing, and coke fueled guitar heroism was on the rise. Glam metal bands had come alive.

Hair Metal ... Defined?

Hair metal, or glam metal as some would have it, is heavy metal lite. And, we can all thank Lester Bangs for coming up with the term heavy metal. I mean, Bangs ... what a fitting name for rock and roll. You can’t make this stuff up.

Songs like Quiet Riot's Metal Health (Bang Your Head), a DuBrow, Cavazo, and Banali penned stadium shaker, Ratt's Round and Round, and Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It owned the airwaves. And, no one batted an eyelash when New York bass player/frontman/vocalist Kip Winger discussed his infatuation with seventeen year old girls openly. In fact, it granted him fame and fortune.

Quite the debut album for Winger I say!

Why is it called Hair Metal?

Hair Metal got its name for the overabundance of both lengthy locks as well as teased coifs full of Aquanet.

Glam metal is basically heavy metal with more upbeat lyrical content (getting chicks versus agony, pain and destruction), more overdrive than distortion (think Boss SD-1 instead of Metal Zone), and dollop upon dollop of mascara, foundation, and hair spray.

Aqua Net FTW!

Huge riffs, pop choral hooks, and lyrics to entice the ladies, hair metal was a genre of pure, unadulterated (but adultery), unabashed, hedonistic fun. Gronk was born just a bit too late ...

Excess and leather, teased hair and pouty faces, bands like Poison and Hanoi Rocks really skirted the androgyny. To quote the wise prophet, Butthead, "These chicks look like guys" - speaking about the Nelson brothers of the eponymously self-titled band, Nelson.

He’s not wrong.

Nelson After the Rain video (youtube) - no thumbnail

Which Bands Were Hair Metal Bands?

American bands like Aerosmith were not considered hair metal. They leaned on some elements of the genre (subgenre?), but ultimately remained entrenched in the classic rock realm. But if we were calling a dude a lady, Steven Tyler fit the bill.

Bands like Poison? 100% pure, Colombian hair metal. Pardon the Medellin/Pablo Escobar/Power Flour pun.

Poison checked all the hair metal boxes. Eyeliner? Mascara? Look What The Cat Dragged In. Power balladry? Every Rose Has Its Thorn. Songs about good times? Nuthin’ But A Good Time.

To be fair, Poison’s band members had super awesome names: Bret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett (two T’s), and Bobby Dall (pronounced Doll).

Members of the hair metal band Poison include Bret Michaels, Rikki Rockett, Bobby Dall, and C.C. DeVille
Bret Michaels, Rikki Rockett, Bobby Dall, and C.C. DeVille of Poison | Photo Credit to Last.fm

Somewhere between Aerosmith and Poison lies 100+ bands who may or may not deserve the victorious or vilified moniker of being ‘hair metal’.

Five bands that come to mind are Van Halen, Guns’n’Roses, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Pantera. Yes, that very same Pantera.

Why? For various reasons, these bands, mostly due to quality songwriting, don’t always get lumped into the hair metal genre.

  • Van Halen: party band that started in the 70s
  • Guns’n’Roses: quality songwriting and showmanship somehow rises them above hair/glam metal and into the avatar of rock and roll itself
  • Bon Jovi: Had the teased hair, but power pop metal crossed over into country on occasion to stay relevant.
  • Def Leppard: was heavy metal/hard rock early and never really relied on makeup, gimmicks, and shenanigans for popularity
  • Pantera: went heavy metal after starting glam (and a lineup change). And to be honest, not ever really considered hair metal

What Was The Sound Of Hair Metal?

The din of the Sunset Strip, Hollywood. That is probably the best way to define it. Hair metal came a long way from the freebird guitar solo. Dive bombs, pinch harmonics, the finger tapping of a young Eddie Van Halen, needless to say, hair metal was guitar aerobics on crack, maybe quite literally. Yacht Rock was for passing the day. Metal is nocturnal. These were night songs.

Despite not being my favorite band, Mötley Crüe did it best. Babes. Beers. Blow. Bitchin’ tunes. Badder than Black Sabbath tunes. Brief dalliances with death (Nikki Sixx).

Sixx, Mars, Neil, and Lee rocked the hardest. Motley Crüe was hair metal’s personification of the power of a hurricane drinking a case of Strohs, and then driving matching Maserati’s down Sunset at 100mph while staring at the babes riding shotgun.

Unfortunately, that was precisely what got Hanoi Rocks' Razzle killed. Crüe leader singer Vince Neil found himself swashbuckling a bit too hard one night and rammed his sportscar into another vehicle.

The Sound of Motley Crue

So, The Crüe’s sound is the sound of hair metal. Jovi was too pop. Def Leppard too synth. G’n’R too blues/dirt. Poison too prom-datey. Van Halen too disparate (Diamond Dave vs. Hagar). Skid Row too harsh on their second album (Slave to the Grind).

They talked the talk, walked the walk, drank the drinks, banged the babes, and snorted the snorts.

Don’t believe me? Check out the album titles:

  • Too Fast for Love
  • Shout at the Devil
  • Theatre of Pain
  • Girls, Girls, Girls
  • Dr. Feelgood
  • Mötley Crüe (self-titled)
  • Generation Swine
  • New Tattoo
  • Saints of Los Angeles

Or as I call it ... Ladies, Bad assery, More bad assery, Ladies, Drugs, How bad ass we are, F you, I kick ass, and we kick more ass than anyone in a city that kicks ass.

They put Tommy Lee in a drum riser above the crowd in an arena. That is the most bad ass, in concert thing you could do. I mean, dude rolls out in a man thong. Not only that, they had blonde bombshells rolling the backing vox.


When Did Hair Metal Rules Rock Radio & Television?

If we are to use Mötley Crüe as the basis for the sound of hair metal, than we should use their formation as the official start of the (sub)genre. Conversely, I feel safe in using the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit as the date of death. Hair metal’s tombstone would look a bit like this:

Born: January 17, 1981

Died: September 10, 1991 (official release, two weeks after radio release)

And to be honest, these timelines work. All of your favorite hair metal albums came out within these dates. Appetite for Destruction, Hysteria, Slippery When Wet, Dr. Feelgood, and Open Up and Say ... Ahh! just to name a few.

Those five albums alone have crushingly good tunes, some of the best 80s hair metal bands had to offer. Welcome to the Jungle. Pour Some Sugar On Me. You Give Love a Bad Name. Kickstart My Heart. Nothin’ But A Good Time, and so, so much more. Glam metal satirists, turned originals like Steel Panther made an entire living by playing these songs while writing their own songs.

Hilariously enough, both Use Your Illusion I and II came out a week AFTER Teen Spirit, an astonishing thought.

When was hair metal’s pinnacle?

Hair metal had many, many triumphant moments. But, the pinnacle must have been July 27th-28th of 1987. Why? That is the exact midpoint of the release dates of Guns’n’Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. These two albums combined for 14 singles, 30 million albums sold in the United States alone, and THE best-selling debut album of all-time (Appetite for Destruction).

Even better, Appetite sold 30 million worldwide, while Hysteria sold 25 million. Think about that, two albums, 55 million plus albums. Stunning.

While Motley Crue did it the hardest as a band, no star burned brighter than G'n'R rock star / lead singer / battlerager Axl Rose. And, no band held it together tighter than Def Leppard. Once again, they had a one-armed drummer.

Everything leading up to that date was the righteous climb up. Everything after that point was the indecorous slide down.

MTV, Heavy Metal Mania, and Headbanger’s Ball, and WAAF Boston

MTV was the single greatest platform that the genre ever had. Beyond just showing the hair metal videos in rotation, it created Headbanger’s Ball, a follow-up to Dee Snider’s Heavy Metal Mania. Rabelaisian videos of scantily clad nubiles being gawked over by leather-studded bandmates were par for the course on Headbanger’s Ball, despite the verbal nod toward thrash and death metal.

Hair metal videos like Warrant’s Cherry Pie (Cherry Pie), Danger Danger’s Bang Bang (Danger Danger), and White Lion’s Wait (Pride) were all over the airwaves. Perhaps the most kick ass video of them all, not "the best hair metal video", but most kick ass video was Skid Row’s 18 and Life (Skid Row), a story about Ricky doing hard time for squeezin’ off a few rounds.

Led by Riki Rachtman, Kevin Seal, Adam Curry, and a slew of others, Headbanger’s Ball was a weekly wardrobe walkthrough to Metal Narnia. Slaughter, Trixter, and Tesla all found a way to make appearances.

107.3 FM WAAF Boston was where I consumed the majority of my hair metal bands via radio. The only station that really rocked did a great job during the "Crank It Up", "Non Stop Rock", and "Untamed Radio" eras of playing unabashedly glam metal hits.

Movie montage hair metal in soundtracks

Movie soundtracks were opportunities for recording labels to test the viability of singers going solo. Young Guns II let Jon Bon Jovi release Blaze of Glory and the Iron Eagle Soundtrack (1986) showcased Mr. Big’s Eric Martin twice - These are the Good Times and Eyes of the World.

Better still, 80s movie soundtracks played out like tennis doubles champions, boasting songs you love by bands that couldn’t hack it solo on the court. For instance, Survivor, known for Eye of the Tiger, is all over the Rocky IV Soundtrack (1985) with Burning Heart, Eye of the Tiger, and Man Against the World. And, layered over triumphant scenes of Decepticons perishing at the hand of Optimus Prime, is Stan Bush’s The Touch and Dare, from the Transformers: The Movie Soundtrack (1986).

Present Day Hair Bands

So where does that leave us? Not completely cut off. With 80s throwbacks like Crazy Lixx, The Darkness and Steel Panther, the show goes on. Not to mention now-defunct (20) man-band, Bang Camaro (the greatest show on earth). Pours one out for Lexxi Foxx.

For now, Pants and I will just have to put I Believe In A Thing Called Love on repeat and wait for the annual 80s Day at Loon Mountain to teleport back to 1987.

The Best 80s Hair Metal Rock Stars/Frontmen/Singers/Vocalists

This list is in no particular order, yet.

  • Jon Bon Jovi
  • Sebastian Bach
  • Axl Rose
  • Joe Elliott
  • Bret Michaels
  • Vince Neil
  • Eric Martin
  • Dee Snyder
  • David Lee Roth
  • David Coverdale
  • Miljenko Matijević
  • Jani Lane
  • Jeff Keith

Who were the best female 80s hair bands?

  • Vixen
  • Lita Ford
  • Bitch (Female-fronted)
  • Precious Metal
  • Fiona (Female-fronted)
  • Poison Dollys
  • Phantom Blue
  • Warlock (ok, a bit heavy on the heavy metal / female-fronted)
  • Lee Aaron (Metal Queen)

Who was the biggest hair band of the 80s?

Motley Crue was the biggest hair band of the 80s. No Hair Metal band did it better.

Hair Bands were popular from 1983 to 1991.

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